Thursday, May 15, 2008

Back-and-Forth to Simsbury

Despite the winds being "calm" yesterday afternoon, by the time I got to Oxford they were 180 at 10 (or, in English: coming from due South at 10 knots, or about 11mph). Ten knots isn't bad, but the fact that it was perfectly aligned with the runway made it even better. Chris and I took off only minutes after I arrived and finished preflight (normally we do some ground-work first, but we saved that for after this time).

Using my flight plan we started flying towards Simsbury (which is actually inside Bradley International's airspace). I made note of the checkpoints as we flew over them -- north of Waterbury, over Bristol, railroad tracks -- and we contacted Bradley Approach and requested flight following.

Chris had told me about flight following before, and it was just as he described. The ATC will give you a number to squawk and will tell you about other traffic in the area, if you're off course, etc. ("To squawk" means to set your transponder to a certain number so ATC can track your plane; normal VFR flight is done with a transponder code of 1200; if you have an emergency you tune in to 7700; if your radios fail you tune in to 7600; if your plane is hijacked: 7500 -- this way ATC knows that something's wrong and can help you accordingly.) On the way ATC spoke to us "984, Baron at 1 o'clock 2500, report visual." We were flying at 3500, so we were 1000' above the guy, who was a little to the right of us (hence "1 o'clock"). Once we saw him, we let ATC know. That was the only thing they said to us until we disconnected and squawked back to 1200 for our landing at Simsbury. (I said Simsbury was in Bradley airspace, but technically it's below... I won't get into the details here, but just know that airspace changes with altitude.)

Chris did 90% of the landing, but that was fine, since I was so nervous. The runway at Simsbury is only 2200' long, whereas Oxford is a whole 5800'. Also, Simsbury's is a lot more narrow. Even though I was nervous, Chris was very reassuring: we normally land fast in case of an emergency, but with a short runway that's not an option. Land slow. No problem. We taxied back (there's no taxi way at Simsbury, you have to taxi on the runway, which was strange) and took off. You have to hold the brakes when you first give throttle in a short field to maximize your speed before taking off. It's what I expected, but we still managed to take off in 1/2 the runway. I was feeling much better about short fields.

While at Simsbury we didn't see another plane (aside from the ones parked there). As we climbed out we decided to stay below Bradley's airspace (again: I'll save that for another time, when I have illustrations) so we didn't have to deal with talking to them on the way out -- that way I got some experience both ways.

En route back to Oxford Chris showed me his parents house (since we were flying over it). I pointed in the general direction of my house.
He asked, "do you know where Oxford is?"
"Over there somewhere, but I can't see it yet."
"Me neither, but you're right that it's over there. Want to show me your house?"
"Umm... ok!"

So we found the roads by my house, traced them there and I pointed it out to Chris. No one was home, or I would have called and told them to look up as we circled. Instead we flew back to Oxford with no problems.

The landing was great, which was nice, since I really wanted a good one. The whole trip the wind was smooth, though apparent (flying to Simsbury gave us a tailwind, so it took less time than on the way back). That was true of the landing as well.

Afterwards, Chris and I discussed our next steps. We're flying to Grotton soon, then "about a week later" I'll do my solo to it. (I'm a little skeptical of that estimate, but I'd happily be wrong, as long as I'm well prepared.) All we have left to study are weather, short & soft fields, cross countries and a few other minor things. We're actually starting to get closer and closer to finishing, which is weird. Soon I'm no longer going to just be "learning to fly" -- soon I'll be a pilot!

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